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Rain was predicted for the Sunday afternoon that I had tickets for the outdoor play Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man. There was no rain date. The subject of the pre-show email simply said, "Bring Your Umbrella, Ponchos, Rain Gear!"
On a temporary stage deep in the Appalachian woods of Rockcastle County, Kentucky, Ezell was a different kind of production. The five acts—called Welcome, Journey, Performance, Return and Feast—generated an immersive storytelling experience, through which the audience was invited to feel a connection to place and to consider the intricacies of stewardship and belonging.
Bob Martin leads the audience to the gathering grounds from the performance site in the woods. Photo by Erica Chambers.
For creator Bob Martin and producer Carrie Brunk, Ezell is an outgrowth of both a passion for locally-engaged theater and their community's efforts to resist the expansion of fossil fuel extraction. The two, known collectively as Clear Creek Creative, have deep roots in Kentucky and intimately aware of the painful history of resource extraction in Appalachia.
A speculator for oil and gas companies knocked on Martin's and Brunk's door in 2014, offering a lease for the mineral rights on the land they call home. At the time, oil and gas companies were aggressively positioning themselves for fracking the Rogersville Shale that lies under a great swath of eastern Kentucky.
This experience inspired the creation of the character Ezell, the play's namesake.
We first meet Ezell as he bounds on to the makeshift stage. His enthusiasm for life is infectious. His character is neither a hero nor a villain. He's human. Complicated. Real. We see his scars from a hard life of working in coal mines and the military. He returns to his ancestral land, perhaps the last place he felt whole, in an attempt to repair the rifts in his arduous life.
The one-man play powerfully wrestles with the personal, financial, generational, and societal barriers Ezell faces to truly going home. As the character says in the play: "Well cousin, to sit on MY porch of MY cabin, I'm gonna have to give up farmin' these hillside flats and drinkin' from that spring and trade them for these frackpads and these deep wells. That's right… And they're gonna need water, and a lot of it, over 2 million gallons per well. So they'll tap that spring and they shoot that water down two miles deep and 2 miles across in every direction to break open that shale and bring up that gas. AND, I'll sit on MY porch, and look out over that holler with these FRACKPADS and all these generators lined up pumping out 24 HOURS A DAY, 7 DAYS A WEEK!"
But it's more complex than that: Ezell also shares tender observations about what has been and will be lost. The majestic chestnut trees that proliferated in the forest. The cold, clear spring with 57 degree water. The family graveyard going back generations. The traditions of the Cherokee people who once lived in the hills and valleys.
Brunk explains, "Ezell as a theatrical work and as a cultural organizing strategy is an attempt to make plain and disrupt domination—to reveal the patterns of domination behavior within this character Ezell, within his relationship to others and the land, within his livelihoods and his ways of being, within his ancestry and his belief system."
Bob Martin as Ezell holding up a fracking pipe. Photo by Erica Chambers.
Martin and Brunk see their work as one strand of an interconnected movement urging a renewable energy future. As the regional coal-based economy declines, advocacy groups like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth promote a "Just Transition"—a shift from an extractive to a regenerative and equitable economy.
One of Clear Creek Creative's partners in the work of social justice-focused and community-engaged theater is Alternate ROOTS. This gathering of artists and cultural organizers of the South who seek to develop community and dismantle oppression through their work provided grant funding to help Martin and Brunk develop the show. During a works-in-progress production, members provided valuable feedback and dialogue about the show. Through an artist exchange, the organization introduced Clear Creek Creative to the developers of Cry You One in New Orleans, and the two creative groups have developed a fruitful ongoing collaboration. The bayou cousin to Ezell is another community-focused production from another place on the frontlines of fossil fuel resistance.
All across the country, there is a hunger for marginalized folks to write their own narrative around place and tradition, especially in Appalachia, a region whose stories are often told by those who do not live there. Holding dear the stories of his home place, Martin enters the round of rural Kentucky voices dedicated to resistance and transformation like bell hooks and Wendell Berry.
"I feel I have a calling to be in service to the stories of my community," he says. "The place we live, rural Appalachian Kentucky, is rich with story as well as song and food and land—these are the sources of creative inspiration and resilience we build from."
The story behind the creation of Ezell was an example of that same collective resilience. Within weeks of being pressured by gas prospectors in 2014, a town hall meeting, attended by 400 people, organized and educated landowners about the threat. Partially due to communal action, extraction companies stopped pursuing leases in the area.
Tables set for the Feast. Photo by Yamil Rodriguez.
A national tour of Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man will launch in 2021. It offers a chance for Clear Creek Creative to share Appalachian stories within the larger national context of climate change and resource extraction. A highly competitive New England Foundation for the Arts National Theater Project grant will help fund the tour. Only eight of the 100 applicants from throughout the country were chosen, and Clear Creek Creative is the first-ever Kentucky-based recipient of the respected award.
Interested in building solidarity with other communities impacted by resource extraction on the tour, Martin and Brunk have connected with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and are making plans to share Ezell in towns and cities along the Ohio River which will be impacted by the proposed Appalachian Storage Hub, a petrochemical processing facility that will stretch 400 miles from Pennsylvania to Kentucky.
Their hope for the tour is to both instigate healing and activate collective resistance. "It is meant for everyone who witnesses it as a motivation to continue—or an invitation to begin—the work of discovering and disrupting domination within and around themselves and to do so as an act of love and liberation," writes Brunk.
Back in Rockcastle County, after the performance of the play, attendees spent time in self-reflection about the places and ways that domination resides in us. Martin's and Brunk's off-grid homestead, consisting of forest, a spring, gardens, a tiny home, composting toilets, and a small stage in the gathering grounds, was an ideal place to slow down and reflect.
Ezell, still in character, then led us to the gathering grounds for the meal of wild turkey meatballs, fried green tomatoes, cornbread pone, and pear crisp which were all sourced locally and accompanied by cold spring water from the site. We sang the meal blessing, rounds of "I am the food I eat, I am the water I drink, I am the air I breathe, I am the land." The candlelight feast served on communal wooden plank tables became a kind of ceremony honoring our relationship to the land and our ancestors. Blue tarps overhead caught the few raindrops that fell.
Two seeds of Ponca corn shared with every guest. Photo by the author.
At the end of the performance, when guests emerged from the woods for the feast, each plate had a small burlap-wrapped bundle. It contained two blue corn seeds and this note.
"This sacred Ponca corn seed has been planted annually in the proposed Keystone XL pipeline path by coalitions of indigenous and settler peoples working together to resist the KXL. We were gifted these seeds and have planted them on Clear Creek each year since. We have been given permission to pass them along to inspire and activate others' resistance & resilience… With love – Carrie and Bob"
Like the play itself, these are seeds of resistance, of fierce hope against overwhelming odds—seeds of resilience, of sacred rituals that strengthen laborers for the on-going work of justice.